Sunday, 22 May 2011

CR professionals as 'master storytellers'

Sustainability professionals are used to being called names. ‘The company’s conscience’, on a good day. ‘Corporate cost centre’, on a bad one. Yet how many have had the term ‘master storyteller’ thrown at them? Few, I’d wager. More’s the pity. So research by the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility suggests, at least.

Narratives comprise an intrinsic part of every company’s identity. No one narrative is the same. A company’s history, its sector, its values, its culture and, above all, its people craft what such a narrative is and how it is told. Composed within this narrative is a separate yet significant sub-narrative: namely, a company’s sustainability ‘story’. Unpicking that story marks a critical part of persuading employees to buy into the whole sustainability agenda. Which is where the story-telling skills of in-house sustainability experts come in. By working with employees to understand why and how their organisations support sustainability objectives, those employees become inspired to start taking action. So the theory goes. But how to go about putting it into action?  

In a guest essay in the latest issue of Ethical Corporation, Doughty scholars David Grayson and Melody McLaren propose three straightforward steps. First, talk to key stakeholders inside and outside your company to assess your current sustainability ‘story’. Second, engage and support individual employees to act as sustainability change agents in order to improve that story. And third, tell your revised sustainability story through use of the company’s formal communication channels as well as through informal social networks.

All sounds like a curious fiction? Then ask the consumer communications gurus at Saatchi & Saatchi. Few understand the influence of a good story better than they. Which is exactly why Wal-Mart turned to them. Working with Saatchi& Saatchi S (the PR firm’s new corporate responsibility outfit), the global retailer hit on its ‘Power of One’ concept. The idea? To help its two million employees develop personal sustainability plans. That gave birth to a second, even more ambitious initiative: its Connect the Dots (Do One Thing) campaign. The campaign aims to engage one billion people as ‘change agents’. Their small, consistent actions will – Wal-Mart tells them – combine to deliver large-scale sustainability solutions. Now these are powerful narratives – even if neither example, as yet, has an ending.

Adam Werbach, global CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi S
“Some companies are already realising profits by putting sustainability at the core of their business. Not with top-down directives from executives, but from dozens, even hundreds of small steps taken by people at every level of their companies.”

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